Simon Willis (The Young Foundation)
Inequality is an urgent and complex problem. It is deeply entrenched in all areas of life. It is pervasively defended and supported, even by those who it damages. To my mind inequality is the main roadblock in our journey toward social justice, and we need an innovative approach to uprooting it that won’t produce the same negligible incremental change we’ve seen in recent years.
The Young Foundation and its predecessor, The Institute of Community Studies, has spent the last 60 years trying to address the structural and institutional causes of inequality. Many organisations work on understanding the economics of inequality, its extent and its effects, and I suggest we need to couple that with:
- Recognition of many, interconnected inequalities;
- Emphasis on qualitative research; and
- Openness to work with many kinds of partners in a range of ways.
An approach such as this could bring about a deep and self-sustaining challenge to inequality, and not simply a redistribution of resources within the very systems that perpetuate the problem. The process we use should speak to values that I believe are essential in a just society: The recognition of the fundamental value of all people, of different contributions, and of collaboration.
What kind of inequality?
Inequality is often used as shorthand for economic or financial inequality. There has rightly been significant focus on economic inequality recently, particularly given the alarming trend towards greater income and wealth inequality in the UK. However, it is important to remember that there are many types of inequality – gender, race, disability and youth to name just a few – and understanding one is close to impossible without also understanding the others. For example, income inequality is impacted by gender inequality, and vice versa.
Whilst it makes sense for individuals and organisations to choose one or a few issues to focus efforts on, we should keep in mind the interconnectedness of all the structures, ideas, norms and institutions that keep us unequal in other ways. It’s only by recognizing and tackling all inequalities that undermine human dignity and mutual respect that we can we have a thriving, resilient and just society.
The value of qualitative research
Part of what allows The Young Foundation to get a real grip on the texture and complexity of inequality is our emphasis on qualitative research. We believe people have a profound understanding of what is getting in the way of them living fulfilling lives. Yet most are rarely, if ever, listened to by people who make decisions that impact them.
We take an immersive and ethnographic approach to much of our research, often in partnership with academic ethnographers, working in and alongside communities to understand the lived experience of inequality. By looking at more than data which attempt to quantify it, we can make policy recommendations or design solutions that work in practice as well as in theory.
No one-size-fits-all solution
Our work ranges from helping housing and health organisations that want to be more innovative in tackling inequalities, with third sector organisations to help them have greater impact, and with companies to move beyond the gesture of CSR and into the world of real positive social impact as a core value and strategic aim.
Tackling multiple inequalities in a lasting way requires openness and flexibility in approach, and a willingness to experiment. The Young Foundation starts movements and organisations, works with individuals and groups within and outside of existing institutions, and tackles inequalities by theme (such as health and gender) but also through places – such as local communities and cities.
Other times, rather than focusing on a place, we focus on a subject. A recent example is The Young Academy which we set up to support social entrepreneurs who are tackling educational inequality. We mentor and support them, invest in them and introduce them to others who can fund their expansion.
Using new ideas that really respond to the specific context as opposed to simply adapting ‘what’s worked before’ takes some courage, and can be tricky to justify to funders. But this approach has been working for us for decades, and means we are continually learning from everything we do.
We never work alone. These problems are far too entrenched and complex for a compact organisation like ours to challenge single-handedly, and we value a breadth of backgrounds and perspectives. So we make common cause with others; with movements and charities, with universities and unions, with companies and social enterprises. Together we constitute a new reform movement that rejects the profound injustices and endless damage caused by rising inequality.
Overcoming the myth of no alternative
Finally, I think an essential step in reaching a just society is believing we can reverse the damaging trends we are experiencing. There has been an increasingly corrosive acceptance that inequality is in some way inevitable. It isn’t. Danny Dorling makes the point very persuasively that there are many more equal countries and that the UK itself used to be far more egalitarian in the thirty years after the war. This is something we can do as a society – others have done it and we have done it before.
At the very heart of the ‘meritocratic’ principals that virtually all of our politicians and leaders espouse is an assumption of fundamental inequality – some people are simply better and harder working than others and therefore deserve more of what life has to offer. As Michael Young observed in his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, meritocrats end up justifying to themselves almost any amount of inequality. And in the process we fail as a society to value or nurture the rich variety of people, skills and views within.
Incorporating the elements I’ve outlined will help us challenge inequality at root. Moreover, the process will move us toward a more just society in recognizing the value of all contributions, and encouraging collaboration and diversity.
Simon Willis is CEO of The Young Foundation, which works to create a more equal and just society, where each individual can be fulfilled in their own terms. It traces its history to the Institute for Community Studies (ICS) which was set up by social entrepreneur, Michael Young, in 1954. The ICS was an urban studies think tank which combined academic research and practical social innovation. In 2005, it merged with the Mutual Aid Centre and was renamed The Young Foundation, in honour of its founder. The Young Foundation is still based in Bethnal Green, where the ICS started.